The Molly Dineen Collection: Volume Three Review
Before reading this review you may first wish to sample my pieces on the previous releases in the Molly Dineen Collection. Volume one can be found here, and volume two here.
The third and final volume in the BFI’s Molly Dineen Collection brings us up to the present day. Everything she has directed since 1997 is included, from that year’s Party Election Broadcast for the Labour Party to 2007’s look at the plight of British farmers, The Lie of the Land. Also included are Geri, her 1999 feature-length portrait of Geri Halliwell just as she exited the Spice Girls, and The Lords’ Tale from 2002, in which she documented the abolition of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Interestingly, thanks to the order in which they were made, and therefore their placement over the two discs, a situation arises whereby we find a definite divide in this volume. The first disc could be tagged as being somewhat celebrity orientated, devoted as it is to Tony Blair and a former Ginger Spice. The second is for the more politically motivated works, two films in which Dineen takes a look behind a pair of key pieces of New Labour legislature and records the human response.
Of course, the Party Election Broadcast, by its very nature, should also come under the ‘politically motivated’ remit, but the overall effect of this film is more obviously geared towards the personal angle. Alastair Campbell referred to it during production as ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’, no doubt a clear nod towards an early 1987 PPB for the Labour Party famously dubbed ‘Neil Kinnock: the Movie’. That film was made by Hugh Hudson, the director of Chariots of Fire, and it contained very little in the way of overtly political content. This was about Kinnock as a human being: husband and father first, politician second. It didn’t win his party the election that year, but it did see an immediate boost in Kinnock’s popularity; hardly surprising, then, that an attempt to emulate its success in this regard would be made a decade later now that the comparatively youthful Blair was Labour leader.
Richard Eyre was originally approached as director, and it was he who suggested Dineen. As she notes in the accompanying ‘making of’ featurette, ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ was her first and, to date, only commission, yet it nonetheless demonstrates many of her hallmarks. The opening shot is of director and subject in the back of car seemingly chatting somewhat casually. Immediately it harks back to previous characters from earlier Dineen docs, whether it’s the zookeepers of The Ark or Major Crispin Black from In the Company of Men. We get that sense of informality to proceedings, that those speaking to camera are just having a chat, almost unaware it’s even there. Blair may be talking about political ideas, but he’s doing so - or rather is shown to be doing so - in a manner that allows something of himself to come through too.
During that opening shot Blair is seen to be wearing a tie, and throughout ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ we have a simple delineation between those scenes where he is with and those where he is without. If the tie is on, then there is going to be some political discussion (most likely centred on the key concept of “change”, a word that comes up more than any other); if he is shown without then we’re getting a personal approach. In these latter instances Blair talks about his father or his childhood dreams of playing football for Newcastle United. We also see him eating breakfast with his son and engaging in a light-hearted exchange. As with Kinnock these moments demonstrate Blair as family man and ordinary ‘bloke‘, although this being the late nineties perhaps ‘lad’ would be more applicable, hence the football reference which you sense Campbell was utterly adamant must make the final edit. (I admit to being a bit surprised that Blair neither plays the guitar at any point nor makes a mention of Oasis.)
Yet whilst it all looks very natural, the realities of its production involved an incredible perseverance on Dineen’s part, just as we’ve seen through her earlier films (getting her student work Home on the Hill shown on the BBC, for example, or gaining such a personal access to her subjects in all of her documentaries). Initially the project was simply to make a portrait of the new Labour leader following the death of John Smith in 1994. There was no definitive outcome planned from such a project and as such Dineen’s access was initially somewhat limited: a few snatched minutes at an airport or in a corridor, and always with Campbell looming in the background. It was only when Dineen put her foot down that her access started to broaden, declaring it impossible to make a personal portrait when she was allowed barely any time with her subject that could be called truly significant. Yet even when the backseats of cars did become available or the ability to enter the Blair household, he still required a bit of coaching. There’s a wonderful outtake in the ‘making of’ where Blair is operating the camera with Dineen caught centre-frame as she explains the basics of looking more human and less like a politician on film. Clearly it did the job.
With only ten minutes of running time to play with ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ understandably comes across as something of a Dineen film in fast forward. It maintains that personal edge so memorable for best work, but also never loses sight of the bigger picture, in this case a quick race through the key Labour policies and repeated deterministic comparisons to the then-Tory government. Quick is the key word here, with rapid cutting as we switch from the backseat of one car to another or interrupt Blair chatting in his kitchen with a few choice words from a conference speech (the famous “Education, education, education” being amongst them). Indeed, it provides a dynamism that isn’t usually present in Dineen’s films or at least not to this breathless degree. Furthermore, there is another way in which ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ differentiates itself from the rest of her work, and that’s to do with the events it captures.
Typically a Dineen film or series is concerned endings, whether it be the ‘end of Empire’, as represented by Hilary Hook in Home from the Hill and Sylvia Richardson in My African Farm, or the massive downsizing of London Zoo documented in The Ark that saw a numerous staff members lose their jobs and the animal population subject to a similar drop in numbers. In the Company of Men, meanwhile, was at least partly about the British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, and in Heart of the Angel we witness the Angel Islington undergoing chaotic death throes just prior to a massive refurbishment. Yet the 1997 Party Election Broadcast is surely about beginnings, a record of Blair just prior to his becoming Prime Minister - and don’t forget that this wasn’t Labour anymore, but New Labour. With that there is arguably a frisson present that doesn’t really figure in Dineen’s other work. We watch these ten minutes through a lens of ‘What went wrong?’; the Tony Blair of 1997 clearly being a different Tony Blair from the one we saw in 2007. Usually, her films are present after something has gone wrong or a momentous change has occurred, but not here. It’s an interesting sensation and, indeed, ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ is a very interesting film. Being a short film, this DVD set relegates it to ‘special feature’ status on the first disc, though hopefully this won’t lead viewers to underestimate it.
Two years after the Party Election Broadcast televised, Dineen’s second ‘celebrity’ portrait appeared on the box, and to a great deal of press attention. Given that Geri was about Geri Halliwell, this shouldn’t prove too surprising, especially as it captured her right at the point of her leaving the Spice Girls. As with ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’, the initial idea for the project was a hazy one. Dineen had met the Spice Girls when Halliwell was still a member and so was contacted by her mere days after the news of her quitting broke. Halliwell was in tax exile in Paris, also seemingly an excellent place to hide from the media’s glare, and was using her brother as amateur cameraman for a fuzzily-conceived portrait. Dineen was clearly invited in as a means of providing that professional sheen, but it seems that filmmaker and subject had different ideas about what a potential film would involve. For Halliwell this was all about self-promotion, a means of maintaining celebrity post-Spice Girls on which she would have final say and final cut; for Dineen it wasn’t quite set in stone that Geri would be her next project, but if it was then Halliwell’s ideas of creative control would have to change.
The conflict (though that’s perhaps too strong a word) comes to a head early on, during a Eurostar journey back to the UK. Halliwell, on the phone to her lawyer and sat directly opposite Dineen, states that she will have full editorial control on any potential film, a claim that understandably takes the director aback. The ensuing conversation is an important one as it identifies two aspects that will be central to Geri as it proceeds. Firstly, it makes explicit a tension between the respective intentions of filmmaker and subject that, despite being soothed at this point, will nonetheless make itself known throughout. Secondly, it reveals Halliwell as not being especially bright. This was unlikely the first time she put her foot in her mouth in front of Dineen and it definitely wasn’t the last: a subsequent exchange sees her comment that you “don’t need a brain” to operate a camera, which of course isn’t going to go down too well.
For the viewer, especially when watching Geri at a distance of twelve years, Halliwell’s seeming lack of smarts proves frustrating. When it first screened there was understandably a great deal of interest in the film as she was arguably at the peak of her fame, from which point it was all slowly downhill. (The liner notes point out that she had five consecutive number one hits as a solo artist, and yet Geri still feels like another of Dineen’s documentaries capturing the end of something.) As 2011 comes to a close, that level of celebrity simply isn’t there anymore and so it’s impossible to replicate an equivalent interest. Nowadays we’re looking for a portrait, not news story titbits, but quite simply Halliwell just isn’t an intriguing enough person to maintain a sufficient grip on the audience. She has little to say, and has a tendency to revolve around her fame and how she intends to go about maintaining that fame. At one point we hear her plan: writing a self-help book that consciously trades on ideas taken from Bridget Jones’s Diary; presenting the Brit Awards; playing the villain in a James Bond movie; making a British comedy film; ending up the equivalent of either Oprah Winfrey or Cilla Black. We also hear that she’s into ‘cosmic healing’, essentially a wish list for things you want in your life; tellingly Halliwell puts “a new house” and “a number one” before “happiness for her family”. Such utterances make her come across as rather dislikeable, nothing more than someone seeking fame and celebrity for the sake of it.
Of course, there has been a spate of such documentaries in the wake of Geri, visual extensions of the glossy gossip magazines and just as vacuous and insignificant. Thanks to Dineen there is more to the 1999 film than these various TV series that have materialised since (What Katie Did Next, Peter Andre: The Next Chapter, and so on), but I wouldn’t blame audiences who have a hard time in spending 90 minutes in the company of a former Spice Girl. Furthermore the abundance of such series, and indeed reality TV in general, arguably makes our reaction even more cynical. My first reaction whenever Halliwell brought up the death of her father, or was filmed crying whilst out dog shopping with George Michael, was that she was simply milking the situations for sympathy. I’m not saying that this is the case, but the glut of ‘celebrity’-based programmed makes it hard not to respond in this matter.
Dineen attempts to counter such issues by, firstly, becoming really quite friendly with Halliwell (according to the ‘making of’ they remain friends to this day) and, secondly, by repeatedly asking “Why?” Ultimately Dineen is trying to make sense of this all herself, albeit from a personal level. As with ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ she wants to strip back the public figure to reveal the human face. In this respect it’s tempting to reference Louis Theroux’s documentary on Jimmy Savile which screened the following year. Both the Halliwell and the Savile films share a certain battle of the wits between subject and filmmaker: one wants to preserve, or perhaps even attempt to help mythologize, the public, whereas the other wants to delve deeper. Theroux arguably ended up with an even-handed contest, each gaining enough ground to produce some fascinating results. Dineen, however, ultimately loses out to Halliwell’s vacuity; there simply isn’t enough there to sustain a feature-length documentary no matter how hard she tries.
Thankfully Dineen’s next film was to have a subject matter more conducive to her probing style. Taking her camera to House of Lords, she set about recording the demise of the hereditary peers as their numbers were drastically reduced from 750 to just 92. The remaining members of the House were to be chosen via election and it is this process which provides The Lords’ Tale with much of its drama. Of course, the cutback in peers has echoes in the staff and animal cutbacks that occupied the first two episodes of Dineen’s earlier series The Ark. However, there is also a continuation from Geri inasmuch as this is another film about finding the human face behind the popular perception. The caricature of these various Lords, Earls and Viscounts is that of being old, out-of-touch and seemingly entirely irrelevant. Understandably, Dineen is interested in revealing the reality beneath the image.
The Lords’ Tale only had limited access with the Labour government refusing to contribute in any way and Dineen being restricted to only the corridors of the House of Lords. Without any government input we necessarily have a one-sided account of the abolition of the hereditary peers, whilst the camera’s inability to enter the various bars or eating places of the House, ie where the members go to relax and converse, unavoidably reduces Dineen’s ability to capture key moments. It almost feels like the equivalent of those initial filming sessions on ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ where her time with the soon-to-be PM was restricted to those moments between meetings, aeroplanes and car journeys. In other words, the actual meat of her subject’s working existence. And yet despite these very obvious limitations, The Lords’ Tale nonetheless contains plenty of wonderful moments and a genuine richness of character.
One of the side-effects of Dineen’s reduced access is that it actually makes her film seem all the more secretive. Confined to the corridors we get snatched glimpses of various rooms and chambers - with occasional entry into a backroom here and there - which only serves to up the sense of intrigue. The House itself is a strange place occupied by its own rules and sense of history: the names of the original Lords are part of the architecture; the rituals that unfold are quite frankly bizarre to the eyes of an outsider. At one point Dineen is informed “Don’t go over the black line” - but we never find out why. And the manner in which the Lords vote, an odd affair involving being penned into corridors and counted, is perhaps the strangest of all.
And so it is that we really do need some kind of human anchor to these proceedings. Dineen provides arguably her most abundant voice-over to date so that the context and explanations are fully in place. (There’s also some intercut footage from the Houses of Parliament to further the relevant background information where necessary.) But more important is Dineen’s ability to get these various Lords to open up to her camera. Some get more screentime than others - one even gets a home visit - though it’s the overall picture and the mixture of voices and opinions that is important. Indeed, some of these men even conform to the old clichés and caricatures, offering themselves up as slightly doddering old rogues who turn up the charm for the woman behind the camera. Yet they are offset by more important, and more eloquent, voices eager to counter such an image and declare the importance of their roles within the bigger picture. There’s an honesty on display and an anger that is, at times, understandable. The Lords’ Tale is ultimately one-sided in its presentation of the massive reduction of hereditary peers. But it’s a fascinating side and the result is genuinely eye-opening documentary.
Much the same could be said of The Lie of the Land, Dineen’s subsequent film and, to date, her most recent. As with The Lords’ Tale the central focus is on the outcome of a piece of outwardly popular New Labour legislature and its human effects. In this case it’s the ban on fox hunting, although this isn’t the sole issue. Initially Dineen began to film the Countryside Alliance and the demonstrations that occurred in London just prior to it becoming law in early 2005. Through these events she met certain people and slowly a central thread emerged that related to the general plight of British farmers. Over the film’s 75 minutes we visit a number of farms in the Cornwall and the Cotswolds, and in each we witness some dire realities. We see the post-BSE climate, the effects of the supermarkets’ stranglehold on the food industry and the effects of various bits of other government legislation from recent years.
Most shocking are the number of animals, and oftentimes healthy animals, who are killed in front of the camera. This isn’t a case of animals being taken to slaughter, but predominantly the need to do away with those who are the wrong breed or the wrong sex in terms of their market value: if their meat or milk isn’t good enough then they become ultimately worthless. One of the men we meet spends his days going around the local farms, killing animals as per request and disposing of the carcasses. In one case he gets paid just two pounds and a packet of fudge for his efforts; the skin will earn another couple of pounds and he’ll feed the meat to the hounds, but he then needs to pay someone else to destroy the bones in the correct, post-BSE approved manner. The shock of all of this isn’t so much the fact that these deaths occur on-camera, but rather the matter-of-fact manner in which it’s carried out. For these men this has become too much of a reality, so much so it barely registers.
One of the key arguments presented by the farmers relates to this everyday killing makes the ban of fox hunting seem trivial in comparison: why care about the fox so much when the government has allowed a situation wherein perfectly healthy animals are being put down so often? When faced with such visceral images - later on beef farmer Glyn Pearman is interviewed whilst holding up the dead body of a mutilated fox, killed so as to protect his pheasants - it’s hard not to react in some manner. With that said The Lie of the Land shouldn’t be labelled as polemic, primarily because Dineen went into the film knowing little about its subject matter. However, character such as Pearman and images such as those discussed do make it difficult to see any other side to the argument. Of course, it should go without saying that The Lie of the Land doesn’t present the entire debate and neither does it intend to. Rather it’s the contribution to that debate which is important.
On top of this we also get Dineen providing the human stories that underpin all of this. Her presence is arguably heavier than in any previous works and at one point she even offers to make the cups of tea. She asks questions whilst she films, and plenty of them, in a manner that provokes instant reactions and, by extension, allows us to get closer to these men and women. As with The Lords’ Tale there is a repeat of the finding the realities behind the caricatures: the perceptions of the countryside by the town and vice versa, aided perhaps by Dineen’s own outsider status. Another connection with the 2002 documentary is the fact that many of its subjects were born into their roles, taking over the farms from the parents and grandparents before them and with that earning themselves a “privileged git” tag, although clearly things aren’t quite so simple. Importantly we come away from The Lie of the Land with the characters - the aforementioned Glyn or the loveable Ian who carries out the daily disposals - being as memorable as the arguments presented. If you wish for your documentary to make an impact then surely that’s a perfect combination.
The Lie of the Land earned Dineen the BAFTA for Best Single Documentary just as The Ark had won for the Best Factual Series award 14 years earlier. It also picked up the 2008 Grierson Award for Best Documentary on a Contemporary Issue, which is just as prestigious. A fine way to top off a career, but let’s hope that Dineen returns with another film or series soon. Watching and reviewing all three volumes of the BFI’s Molly Dineen Collection over the course of 2011 has revealed a wonderful talent. I can fully remember the coverage surrounding The Ark, Geri and The Lie of the Land, and part of the appeal of these sets is the ability to discover the filmmaker behind the talking point subject matter. Similarly I had previously seen an episode or two of In the Company of Men, but those memories were entirely divorced from the director. Now we can properly view these films - no longer hampered by erratic or non-existent repeat screenings - as those of a singular and very distinctive voice. Furthermore, we can add that voice to the ranks of superb documentary filmmakers British cinema and British television have produced over the years. Of course, it also asks the question as to who’s next in line for such a collection. What other talents have the BBC and Channel 4 been nurturing over the years?
Volume Three in The Molly Dineen Collection follows the pattern set by the previous releases. Two discs, free of region coding, hold the films with attendant ‘making of’ featurettes in place for each alongside a fully illustrated booklet. ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’ and Geri are on disc one, with The Lords’ Tale and The Lie of the Land on disc two.
In terms of the presentation the overall quality is really rather good. Original 1.33:1 television ratios are in place for each as are original soundtracks. The Lie of the Land and The Lords’ Tale were sourced from Molly Dineen’s own masters, with the Party Election Broadcast and Geri coming from the BBC Archive and Channel 4’s original broadcast materials, respectively. Each is in wonderful condition with little in the way of damage or wear making itself known. The contrast levels on the Houses of Parliament footage from The Lords’ Tale (which was supplied to Dineen rather than filmed by her) aren’t particularly great in comparison to the rest, though this would have been inherent in the original. Similarly any audio issues (especially in Geri where the camera’s built-in microphone was used) are the result of their individual films’ production as opposed to any problems resulting from their transfer. The level of detail is consistently good in each throughout, whilst the colour levels appear natural and as intended. Note also that the use of the original soundtrack means that a swearword has been bleeped out of Geri as per original transmission, whereas the odd bit of strong language in The Lie of the Land (and its outtakes during its ‘making of’) is shown uncensored. Optional subtitles, for the hard of hearing or otherwise, are not available.
The ‘making of’ featurettes cover each film individually, though on the second disc those for The Lords’ Tale and The Lie of the Land have been paired despite separate title cards. In each Dineen is on hand to offer background to the productions and discussion of the problems incurred. During the ‘making of’ to Geri we also get some contributions from Halliwell. As with those from previous volumes these various featurettes make for highly informative viewing. The presence of outtakes in all but Geri makes them doubly interesting, especially in the case of ‘Tony Blair: the Movie’. The films also earn their own individual notes in the booklet (The Lie of the Land’s being a reprint of a review that appeared in the Independent), plus there are the recollections of Peter Dale, the man who commissioned the three main documentaries on this set. Alongside these pieces we also get Stella Bruzzi’s introduction to Dineen (also present in volumes one and two) and the usual collection of credits, acknowledgements and notes on the transfers.